Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies

By Russell J. Dalton; Martin P. Wattenberg | Go to book overview

4 The Decline of Party Mobilization

Martin P. Wattenberg

When E. E. Schattschneider wrote that 'political parties created democracy' he was primarily referring to their historical role in expanding citizen participation. In the era prior to the development of parties, voting was typically the purview of a small percentage of the populace. Political parties both fought for an expansion of suffrage and mobilized the newly enfranchised to go to the polls. Conversely, throughout history when parties have failed to perform their functions, electoral participation has declined. In sum, the saga of electoral participation in advanced industrialized countries is one in which the state of political parties, and the party system more generally, has played a critical role.

The United States presents an important case study of the relationship between party system development and electoral mobilization. The very first party system in the world appeared in the USA in the late eighteenth century and historians generally credit the emergence of parties with significantly increasing the levels of turnout. William Chambers (1963: 32) writes that turnout figures from this period 'show voting participation increasing as party development and rivalry advanced'. These nascent parties served to stir up interest in political questions and to provide a vehicle through which to channel popular participation.

Most of the leaders of America's first party system did not consider themselves professional politicians, however, and the idea of a regularized party opposition had not yet been conceptualized (Hofstadter 1972). Party leaders who lost their bids for office often withdrew completely from the political arena rather than try to mobilize voters for political change. In particular, the Federalists were poorly organized, and after repeated defeats they no longer even bothered to offer up a presidential candidate by 1820. As this first party system crumbled, it is notable that turnout fell off dramatically—in many states by as much as half (McCormick 1975 : 95-6).

The rise of professional politicians in America's second party system led to the development of party organizations as a means by which to regularly mobilize the electorate. The sharp rise in voting turnout from 27 per cent of white adult males in the multi-factional US presidential election of 1824 to 80 per cent in 1840 is often attributed to the development of keen nationwide party competition. As

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